What Auston Matthews’ tribute to Patrick Marleau meant to San Jose

Marleau’s impact has crossed the league and I’m starting to feel okay with that.

Auston Matthews had been starting to sweat since intermission.

The Most Accurate Shooter competition was to be the final event at the 2019 NHL All-Star Skills Competition and the wait was getting to the Toronto Maple Leafs’ star forward. He was nervous, he admitted after the competition, but not for how he would perform in the shooting drill.

When it finally came to his turn, with just enough waiting around to give his anxiety plenty of time to settle in, he skated out to center ice and dropped his gloves and stick. He took a breath and pulled off his Maple Leafs sweater. Underneath, he revealed an All-Star Maple Leafs sweater to some initial confusion.

That is, until he tugged the sweater down, straightening it out to fully expose the number 12 with a Patrick Marleau nameplate. The crowd at SAP Center, who had been fairly quiet during this event, took a second to decide what he meant by the gesture and determining no ill will, rose to their feet to cheer him on.

“I think that’s just a testament to how much of a legend he really is here,” Matthews said. “It’s pretty amazing, and everything he’s done for the city of San Jose in his career here.”

He finished eighth in the event. In the sea of applause, it’s difficult to believe that anyone noticed.

Drafted second overall by the San Jose Sharks in 1997 (the summer following the first year that the Sharks hosted the NHL All-Star Game), Patrick Marleau quickly became a fan favorite. The eventual acquisition of the first overall pick in his same draft class in the form of Joe Thornton only made him more popular, thanks to their chemistry on ice and friendship off it.

Just as Gordie Howe was dubbed “Mr. Hockey,” Number 12 was given the nickname “Mr. Shark,” a moniker earned by being the perfect representative of the Sharks organization and a face of Bay Area hockey.  He was named captain in 2003, becoming part of the leadership group and growing into a veteran role that felt natural as the Sharks ever so slowly became younger and faster.

That’s not to say it was all smooth sailing for Marleau in San Jose. He was striped of his captaincy in 2009 by Todd McLellan. When Jeremy Roenick publicly called out Marleau for being “gutless” after a Western Conference Semi-Final Game 5 loss to the Detroit Red Wings in 2011, few, if any, fans could find themselves able to side with the player no longer in the teal sweater.

The Sharks weren’t good when they drafted him, still in their infancy and learning what it took to get to the postseason. But the shorter summers became a regular thing in Marleau’s time in San Jose. He was the difference-maker in San Jose and drafting him ushered in an era of sustained success. In the six years before Marleau, the Sharks missed playoffs four times.

In 19 seasons with him? They only missed twice.

He signed a three-year contract extension in 2005. Then again in 2008 for another two years. Four more years in 2010.

Then in 2014, Marleau and Thornton signed twin contracts through 2017.

They came into the league together. With time no longer on their side, it looked like they’d find a way to go out together, too. And maybe, just maybe, they’d do that in San Jose.

As free agency loomed in the summer of 2017, it seemed like the pair were going to test the waters of the rare opportunity they had before them. Despite being well on the wrong side of 30 years old, both players were producing at an elite level. They had good hockey left in them and they knew it.

Marleau wanted term. Thornton, it seemed, wanted to play with Marleau.

Sharks fans thought they might lose both players. If they were to lose just one, Thornton was the obvious choice; after all, he’d played on another team before. All Marleau knew was San Jose.

Maybe that was the downfall, though. Thornton had something else to compare San Jose to and it turns out, he liked it here better. For Marleau, maybe he felt it was just time to move on and find something new.

Watching a franchise player leave isn’t easy. Watching him go to a team that had a shiny new group of young superstars felt even worse. It’s the heartbreaking part of caring about sports: You can’t blame a guy for wanting a chance at the Cup, but you sure can be mad that he didn’t think he could get that with your team.

Matthews didn’t tell Marleau about his plans for the Skills Competition.

“I try not to bother him,” he told the media after the Skills Competition on Saturday. “I know he’s on vacation. But he texted me when I got off the ice, and just said, ‘Thanks, that was awesome.’”

It was important for Matthews to do this, with or without Marleau’s pre-approval. Over the last two seasons, Marleau stepped seamlessly into a leadership role with the Maple Leafs. The young guys on the team, especially Matthews and Mitch Marner, admire him in a way that’s somewhere between familial and idolizing.

“He does so much for myself and the team beyond how amazing he is on the ice,” Matthews elaborated. “Just the kind of person he is and the way he treats people is second to none. We’re extremely lucky to have him in Toronto. Lucky to call him a great friend.”

A funny thing started happening the more Matthews talked about Marleau: I remembered the number of times Sharks fans had to defend Marleau over the years and I heard their words echoed back in the 2016 first-overall pick.

“He’s meant a lot. I like to make fun of him and tease him and he’s like a second dad to me, but he doesn’t like it. He’s like a brother to me. We’re extremely close, myself and Mitch. He’s an amazing teammate. He treats everybody so well. It doesn’t matter who you are, a random person in the street or a teammate that plays with him, he treats everybody so kindly and he’ll do anything for anyone.”

There was an authentic awe in his voice when he talked about Marleau, which felt surreal given how huge of a star he is himself.

“Just his presence. He never gets too high or low and I think that’s something that I learned from him. Just the way he carries himself. He’s such a good professional. There’s a reason he’s played the amount of games that he’s played and had the career that he’s had. We feel fortunate to have him in Toronto because he makes such a big impact on guys like myself and others beyond just on the ice.”

Slowly, I started to access the resentment I didn’t even realize I had buried in 2017 ... and thanks to Matthews, I started to let it go.

“I can’t explain it, how great of a guy he is, how close we are in our relationship. He’s just an unbelievable person.”

Marleau leaving felt like the end of something in San Jose. He changed the franchise for the better and gave it an identity as one of its first franchise players. To this day, he still holds these records:

Sharks all-time leader in goals (508)
Sharks all-time leader in even-strength goals (331)
Sharks all-time leader in power-play goals (160)
Sharks all-time leader in shorthanded goals (17)
Sharks all-time leader in game-winning goals (98)
Sharks all-time leader in points (1,082)
Sharks all-time leader in shots (3,798)
Sharks all-time leader in games played (1,493)
Sharks all-time leader in consecutive games played (624)
Most seasons of 10+ goals scored as a Shark (19)
Most seasons of 20+ goals scored as a Shark (14)
Most seasons of 30+ goals scored as a Shark (7)
Fastest Shark to 10 goals in a season in franchise history (6 games)
Fastest Shark to 30 goals in a season franchise history (47 games)
The youngest player in NHL history to reach the 1,000-game mark with one team on Jan. 17, 2011
The youngest player in NHL history to reach the 1,300-game mark on Feb. 5, 2015
The youngest player in NHL history to reach the 1,400 game mark on March 19, 2016
The first Shark to score 4 goals in a single period on Jan. 23, 2017
The first (and only) Shark to score 500 goals with the team on Feb. 2, 2017
The third-youngest player to 1,000 career NHL games (31 years, 124 days), behind Dale Hawerchuk and Vincent Damphousse

Patrick Marleau was no small fry in San Jose, but sometimes it felt like no one cared but Sharks fans. Compared to the coverage of Toronto, they’re easy to ignore and sometimes that’s for the better. Other times, it means former players can get away with calling a should-be future Hall of Famer “gutless” on a national broadcast.

San Jose loved Patrick Marleau. It wasn’t always perfect for him here. Leaving couldn’t have been easy. And knowing he likely had mixed feelings about leaving has made it hard for Sharks fans to parse their feelings on his departure.

Knowing that Toronto gave him a contract he was never going to get in San Jose should’ve been the end of it, but the human side of sports is about a return on emotional investment and losing Marleau felt a lot like getting cheated.

But Matthews’ comments put it in another light.

For 19 seasons, the Sharks cheated the rest of the league. They held onto a wonderful person and player, whose impact in that room and on the ice has one of the best young players in the game in awe when he speaks of him. He might be a father figure to Auston Matthews now, but he was doing that for the Bay Area before Matthews was in the league.

Selfishly, did we want Patrick Marleau to stay? Of course. At the time, it felt like that window to make it back to the Final was only open as long as Marleau held it there.

But the world still turns for the Sharks without Marleau — and look what he gets to do now. There’s an embarrassment of riches when it comes to leadership in San Jose. In Toronto, Marleau gets to take on that role in a way that was understated and overshadowed before. They feel lucky to have him and they should. There are still times I think we didn’t appreciate him enough.

For Matthews, born in San Ramon, this was the one chance he’d get to pay tribute to the city of San Jose for the man who has made an immeasurable impact on his life.

For San Jose, it was much-needed closure.